The great deed is done. Seven novels published, selling 450 million copies. Eight movies made for over $1 billion, their income over $6 billion and soon rising to over $7 billion as the last film spreads out. If you don’t know to what I am referring, please return to your home planet, and do not file a report on dreamy, story-mad Earthlings.
The last movie from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, covering the second half of her final book, faces the impossible task of being fully satisfactory. It’s impossible because the fans don’t really want the show to end, even though most have read that novel and know how it must end.
The early movies brought us the Rowling vision like a huge, very British Christmas tree, spilling gifts. Many of the first fans (like my kids) were in age sync with the young heroes, and those children have grown up with the star trio, who are kids no longer: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint). It is a world deeper than Disney, rooted in Dickens and Tennyson. It was also a balm for our tormented world, as the first movie opened just two months after 9-11.
Kids and adults will still find the books and films, and love them, but they won’t be the Harry Potter generation. There has been such astonishing craft, humor, and narrative force, along with some murk and repetition. There are dozens of engaging figures — and hissable ones, such as vile, nose-less Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). To me, the most fascinating is the most ambivalent, Professor Snape, acted by Alan Rickman with his crepe-of-death voice and aura of secrets that even God wouldn’t want to know — he is finally heroic, in a dark, tragic way.
Of course, the last picture foregrounds brave hero Harry, much as 3-D now foregrounds the action. The Potter series always had, emotionally, its own special 3-D: the three Hogwarts Academy chums. I wish that this final, violent, chilly, but moving epic had more time for Ron and Hermione and less for Voldemort’s corny snake (still, a fright to small fry). A long battle sequence feels about halfway to theme-park status, but the desecration of Hogwarts is painful to watch.
There is a magical scene of Harry and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at a kind of heavenly rail depot. Because I’ve never read the books, I lack the Talmudic savvy to fully understand the plot logic. Doesn’t matter. It has been a fantastic trip. The Potter films blessed our hopes, shivered our nerves, widened our eyes, gladdened our hearts, made everything seem possible. How pleasing, that the most successful film series is also the best.
A Better Life
Could A Better Life have been a better film? Sure, if art had been desired. Director Chris Weitz and his writers wanted a socially aware movie with theme-driven appeal, upheld by good casting and honest effort. That they got, supported by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Road) and star Demián Bichir. For Bichir, who has played Fidel Castro and Emiliano Zapata, this is a pride platform much as La Mission was for Benjamin Bratt in 2009, Selena was for Jennifer Lopez in 1997, and Born in East L.A. was for Cheech Marin in 1987.
Carlos (Bichir) is a Mexican illegal in L.A., up from the day-labor hiring pool to assist a Latino gardener who owns a truck. A chance to buy that truck arises. Carlos senses that his teen son Luis (José Julián) is in danger of falling into gang life, still missing his absent mother and embarrassed that dad is a hard-scrabble worker. The truck is a ticket to more than self-employment. It becomes almost as freighted with value as the bike of the desperate father and son in The Bicycle Thieves.
Bichir’s work has a deep, urgent validity, without any mural poses, and Julián goes somewhat beyond the generic marks of his film type. The barrio rooting is vividly honest, the father and son choices feel truly lived, and a late confrontation pays off credibly. These are hard times, not just for émigré gardeners, and director Weitz has extended the decent sympathies of his 2002 success, About a Boy.
The Names of Love
With The Names of Love, director Michel Leclerc and writing partner Baya Kasmi, who is of Algerian lineage, dive right into France’s bubbling cauldron of ethnic, religious, and national-identity anxieties. They picked up the 2011 César Award for scriptwriting, and their star Sara Forestier received that prize as best actress. You wonder if the rattled French are not simply grateful that someone approached this hot mess of issues with humor and a certain esprit de frivolité.
Forestier is Baya, very Parisian and Euro, yet proudly and demonstrably of Algerian background. She is certainly not Muslim in her fierce, solo campaign to seduce and convert “fasho” (fascist) men by splashing them with the erotic elixir of herself. This provides the camera, and our zooming eyes, many frissons of nakedness. Even Charles de Gaulle might have grandly murmured “oo-la-la.” Forestier’s body, a lovely, liberated, Franco-Arabic-UNESCO body, was surely the film’s export visa.
Among those thrilled by it is Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), a starchy, rather humorless scientist who doesn’t want to talk about his family’s lost Jewish identity, though it triggers a funny dinner conversation that touches the third-rail issue of Holocaust PC. And so it goes, including a cameo by famous (in France) Socialist politician Lionel Jospin, a dead-swan scene that might have milked even the tear ducts of Tchaikovsky, a ridiculous episode in which Baya goes briefly behind the veil, and such lines as “our families are like two slices of history making love.” Gamblin is an actor of sly, witty dryness, but the movie sinks or swims (breast stroke, of course) on what you think of Forestier.
Not since Didi Conn in You Light Up My Life has a performer been so eager to light up our lives. No, not even Audrey Tautou in Amélie, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, or Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. Leclerc claims to be a disciple of Woody Allen, and we can see a slight, French-fried resemblance to the little jester. But in his patchy, pumped, hurl-it-together way, Leclerc is closer to the L.A. indie (and vanity) director Henry Jaglom, and Forestier is like a sexier, sharper version of Jaglom’s favorite star, the insistently irritating Tanna Frederick. You have been warned.